Why Are We So Obsessed With Old Photos of Presidential Candidates?

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Photo: Punahou School, Andre Salarnier

Did you see the picture of hipster Newt Gingrich? (Or is that Dwight Schrute Newt Gingrich?) What about Mitt and Ann Romney dressed up for the prom? How jarring was it, just this week, to see Callista Gingrich with a different haircut? Who knew Ron Paul had such a nice-looking baseball swing? Maybe Buzzfeed's house archivist Andrew Kaczynski is to blame, but for whatever reason, this election cycle has been inundated with archival photos of the candidates and their wives, pre-fame. Seeing them before they were old never gets old.

Sometimes the photos fit into the campaign-season narrative in a clear, provocative way. Consider this picture of very nineties-looking Newt Gingrich sprawling lovingly on a wooded knoll with his then-wife Marianne, even in the midst of his Callista affair. Or the instant classic of Mitt Romney posing happily with cash and professional pals. Those function as gotchas — see, he's always been this way. But others have less direct bearing on what's going on in the here and now. It doesn't really matter, does it, that Obama in his twenties was the kind of guy who, armed only with a cigarette and a sidelong glance, could make a truly lame hat look stylish? Except that it did, subtly, in 2008. Voters inclined to think that some sort of innate swagger was an attractive quality in a candidate were even more drawn to Obama after seeing those pictures; conversely, Karl Rove and other Republican operatives picked up on the sense, in some quarters, that Obama was a little bit too cool, and used it against him. It was a perception that came just as much from the widely circulated old photos as from his 2008-era suit or dad-jeans-wearing demeanor. The pictures of Obama hinted at a trait we hadn't yet fully recognized in him — but once we started looking, it was everywhere. Same goes for this cycle's candidates.

The cliché might be that you have the face nature gives you at 20 and the face you deserve at 50, but we all persist in thinking that it's our younger selves that are the truest versions. It's the strictures of adulthood and office culture that disguise or alter them beyond recognition. For politicians far enough along in their careers that they're serious presidential contenders, that's especially true. Every public appearance is planned, every photo shoot carefully considered, and, unlike with regular celebrities, whose "before they were famous photos" hold a similar fascination for us, the distinguishing quirks of style and attitude are gradually edited out, not heightened for effect. That's why the informal snapshots — the way the candidates mugged for the camera before they ever imagined that millions of people would care even remotely about what they wore to the prom — seem to offer a glimmer into their private persona that not even the most supposedly unguarded contemporary pictures do. The White House Flickr stream is full of charming snapshots of Obama doing ordinary guy things, but the fascination there lies in the cognitive dissonance: We know his life's not normal, so it's weird to see him act like it is. There's more of a sense of performance when he's caught in a candid shot coaching his daughter's basketball team or petting his dog than there was when, years ago, he vogued for the camera in a photo shoot.

Even if you want your president to be buttoned-up and statesmanlike, it's endearing to know that he was once kinda cool, or cooler than he is now, anyway. That's the useful part of these archival pictures, for the campaigns. With the possible exception of Rick "McLovin" Santorum, every single one of them comes across that way. Maybe it's the youthful glow; maybe it's that we're in a cultural moment where, thanks to Instagram, we want to put a vintage-looking filter on the present to give it an extra bump of style.  Or maybe it's just that the shots feel like found treasures: pre-Facebook, people didn't have an easily searchable visual timeline of their lives,  and so physical transformations seemed more final. Fewer moments were chronicled — and fewer still of the more risqué ones.

It's an era that may come to a close soon. We've already seen one candidate whose "archival" pictures nearly did her in. Granted, it was partly the racy content of those holiday-party shots of then-22-year-old Krystal Ball — fellating a reindeer dildo isn't exactly the kind of thing that makes voters think of you as an effective leader — but the digital picture quality also looked inescapably contemporary.  Maybe we'd have looked more warmly on Ball's hijinks if they looked grainier, her overexposure made palatable by the film's overexposure. But that's for a future crop of presidential candidates to worry about. The current one, old enough to have a personal cache of Life magazine–ready nostalgia, might do well to station a low-level staffer with a scanner and a Twitter feed at their childhood homes for a week or two.

Below, a slideshow of some of this election cycle's greatest archival hits.

Related: Why Are We So Obsessed With the Presidential Candidates' Style This Time Around?